DUNEDIN — For the past four Sundays, Jim McGinity and his team have arrived at Dunedin's Hammock Park before sunrise. Rain or shine, they bring mist nets, bird-banding and measurement tools, manuals and mosquito repellent, lugging it all deep into the wooded 90-acre park.
They set up five nets to catch birds, a canopy to shade a work station and then wait.
The all-volunteer team is conducting the Migratory Bird Banding Research Project. The real work begins when a bird flies into a net. Each bird is carefully removed, and the job of assessing each bird's size, weight, and wing condition, recording data, and tagging the bird gets under way.
McGinity is certified to run the project. He is also dedicated to educating the public about migrating birds and their disappearing habitats.
With two Sundays left to view what happens at the Migratory Bird Banding Research Project, a visitor might even get the chance to release one of the birds, because the public is invited.
"Parks and preserves like this one are really critical habitat for these migrating birds," said McGinity. "They're important stopovers and we need to work hard to maintain the ecological integrity of the remaining pieces of natural Florida. Right now this park is overrun with invasives and needs more attention. That's part of the reason we're doing this — to draw attention to the park and draw attention to these migrating birds."
McGinity teaches environmental science to kindergartners through sixth-graders at Learning Gate Community School, an environmental charter school in Lutz. He conducts all the assessments of birds for the project. His team varies from five to seven volunteers each week and also includes a teen who is gathering community hours toward a Bright Futures Scholarship.
"This has been fun," said Ryan Gardner, 14, of Temple Terrace, who takes Advanced Placement courses at King High School in Tampa. "Since I've been here I've studied the birds we catch. I've learned their names and how far they all migrate."
The research project falls under the auspices of the U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS). It provides the aluminum bands that tag each bird after McGinity measures the leg and attaches the band like a tiny bracelet.
According to the USGS, there are 25 standard sizes of bands for birds and five specific ones for the smallest hummingbird to the large Trumpeter swan.
Andrew Fuddy, 32, a biologist and environmental consultant from Tampa, is assisting McGinity. "I'm here to help out, keep my skills sharp and meet like-minded people," he said.
Ric Hover, 65, of Tarpon Springs has been working with McGinity for more than two years. On a recent Sunday, he recorded the birds' weight, wing length, band number and other information McGinity provided as he inspected, assessed and tagged each bird.
Other volunteers like Karl Nichter, 65, of New Port Richey and his wife Kathleen, 57, volunteer regularly with McGinity and know what needs to be done when things get hectic. A timer goes off every 30 minutes to alert the team that it is time to check the nets for birds. While many birds are colorful, many also are brown or match the color of the habitat around them. So McGinity and the team check the nets carefully and up close.
"Birds may be brown and hanging in a net and from a distance can look like a leaf," McGinity said. "If you don't look closely and miss it, that bird can be hanging for 30 more minutes, which isn't good. Added stress, and there are predators around. You could attract a hawk, a snake, deer or squirrels, which will eat birds out of the nets. A dog might eat a bird out of the net."
Team member Dave Noel stays busy snapping photos of each bird for the research project. So far he has 160 educational photographs of birds, which he will give to McGinity at the end of the project.
About 15 people showed up on Sunday morning to watch McGinity and his team. They walked quietly to the nets. They peered at the bird in McGinity's hands as he checked feathers. Some had the chance to release a bird into the wild once it was tagged.
Darlene Heck and her family traveled from Wesley Chapel.
"I think this is a great outing," said Heck, whose children attend the school where McGinity teaches. "They do this bird banding one day a week at school."
By 10:30 that Sunday, four birds had been caught, measured, weighed, checked for feather molting and damage, tagged and released. They ranged from a white-eyed vireo to a male cardinal to a worm-eating warbler.
Each got its tiny aluminum band, which McGinity chose after measuring each bird's leg. The lightweight bands do not hinder a bird's flight. Each band is inscribed with a call 1-800-327-Band and www.reportband.gov, plus a unique eight- or nine-digit number. A bird can be tracked and much can be learned about its journey, health and habits.
"Most people walking their dogs through the park or just walking don't even know these birds are here," said McGinity. "That's why we're open to the public, to let people know these birds are here."